Tucked away off the coast of Abu Dhabi is an 87- square-kilometre island that’s home to over 13,000 wild animals. The natural island of Sir Bani Yas is one of the largest in the U.A.E and was originally developed as a wildlife reserve by the late founder and president of the U.A.E, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in 1971. His Highness wanted to ensure the survival of Arabia’s endangered species, and so he had an eco-friendly conservation structure built. After his passing in 2004, the Royal family opened the island to the public. As an adventure traveller, the horse riding excursions and safari tours topped my wish list. They offer guests an unparalleled experience to explore the island and get up close to wild animals.
Horse riding safari © Dannielle Blaker
After a 25-minute flight from Abu Dhabi, we arrive in style at the Sir Bani Yas private airport. If you’d prefer to drive, it takes three hours from Abu Dhabi to the Jebel Dhana Jetty, where a 15-minute water taxi will bring you to the island. I prefer to fly, as it’s faster and you can see the beauty of the island from a bird’s eye view.
Rotana jet, Dannielle Blaker
Horseback riding safari
First on my itinerary is the horseback-riding safari. Once we’re at the stable, I’m paired with my handsome horse by Fiona the stable manager and meet my guide and the two other riders joining the excursion. Setting off on horseback, I’m not sure what to expect. Cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, ostriches and 20 other species of free-roaming animals live on the island so I hope to get a glimpse of several. Our guide explains that he can’t guarantee we’ll see them all. However, ten minutes into the ride we encounter our first cheetah. With a tall fence separating us, I don’t feel at all nervous and the cheetah (who is lazing in the sun) doesn’t take much notice. It’s not until we come across a pair of cheetahs out in the open that I begin to worry how the horses will react being so close to these exquisite and agile creatures. Thankfully, the horses had no fear, and after we take our National Geographic-worthy photos, we continue on.
© Dannielle Blaker
As we meander through the colourful mountains our guide explains the various rock types that have developed over millions of years. The island is rich in minerals, but is safeguarded as part of the conservation programme. If you’re an experienced rider, you’ll enjoy trotting and cantering along the flat and open areas of the trails. There’s also a Mangrove Lagoon trail to thrill advanced riders, who can take in the beautiful scenery while riding next to the water.
© Dannielle Blaker
Continuing the safari in a 4x4
With camera in hand, I take a seat in the safari truck that has a push-open roof for standing and has completely open sides where glass windows would normally be.
4x4 © Danielle Blaker
As our South African guide and driver sets off into the park, she explains that the iconic animal species in the park is the endangered Arabian Oryx. This indigenous animal has been classified as extinct in the wild since the 1960s. Sir Bani Yas has a herd of over 500. The island is also home to many species of wild birds that are native to the region such as eagles and falcons. Several non-indigenous species settled during migration and made the island their permanent home. Birdlife includes flamingos, cormorants, wild fowl, pintails, black-winged stilts, teals, crab plovers, avocets, and grey herons.
Where to relax after a long day on safari © Dannielle Blaker
We arrived at one of the feeding areas where we watched hundreds of Sand Gazelles, Blackbuck Antelope, and Arabian Oryx feed. To be surrounded by that many animals is a riveting experience. As we continued on, we came across two male giraffes amongst the bushes. The group was excited to say the least. We pressed the roof of the vehicle open so we could stand and take photos. As we continued on, we came across a lone giraffe feeding. We were only a few metres away from this magnificent male, who was more than happy to pose for us while he ate.
A giraffe provides a perfect photo opportunity © Dannielle Blaker
Sir Bani Yas Island is the perfect weekend getaway for luxury travellers who enjoy rare encounters with spectacular animals. You’ll be sure to leave the retreat with a better knowledge of wildlife and conservation. In addition, you’ll have some impressive photos and a wealth of unforgettable memories. To find out more about the island and all it has to offer, visit www.sirbaniyasisland.com